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How to talk to your kids about coronavirus — and survive the school closure together

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Kianna Goodwin. Photo courtesy Anesis Therapy.

It’s a difficult time for everyone — especially for families with children, who are suddenly living in close quarters as schools are closed, people are either out of work or working from home, and there are no restaurants, bars or even libraries to visit.

Kianna Goodwin, APSW, is a psychotherapist at Anesis Therapy in Madison, says it’s important not to pretend everything is normal.

“You really want to be aware of how you’re expressing your own anxiety and your own frustration,” she says. “You need to model that healthy processing of your own emotions because they will pick up and reflect that. You want to be getting your own supports, and managing your own anxiety, and frustrations in ways that you want to model.”

She also says it’s healthy to talk about what’s going on openly. 

How much should a family talk about coronavirus?

“The answer is a lot,” she says. “You check in continuously, not just once. And the routines and the structures that you’re creating are opportunities to do so, to keep checking back in.”

Routine might be hard to carve out at first, but it doesn’t have to be too complicated.

“It could be family routines, like, ‘Oh, we all wash our hands together when we get back from out of the house and we all wipe our phones together.’ Those are the opportunities to check in, whether you’re seeing symptoms or not,” she says. “By creating routines, we’re acknowledging that things are not functioning typically and we are creating a sense of agency.”

Goodwin said it’s also important to ask honestly what your kids are feeling and going through.

“You want to be really curious. You want to discover any unhelpful or inaccurate worries that they could have that are exacerbating that anxiety,” she says. “You want to be curious about that and ask them what they think they know, because kids and teens are very self-focused. They may be really concerned about their own world and the impact on their own functioning, so they may be really worried about, are they going to be able to keep up at school? And they may have a lot of other emotional reactions that aren’t stress or aren’t anxiety. Their grief and sadness.”

She also notes that a lot of older kids might be especially mourning.

“Teens are losing out on a lot of rites of passage. They’re missing out on graduations, and proms, and sports, and trips. They may be feeling particularly stir-crazy,” she says.

Goodwin says not to take it too personally if your teens don’t want to hang out.

“It’s developmentally appropriate for them to want a lot of distance. Peers are the most important thing in the whole world. That’s so normal,” she says.

She also says there are physical signs to look for in your children beyond signs of the virus itself.

“You want to be on the lookout and curious for symptoms of anxiety, which can look different in kids,” she says. “It could be stomach aches and trouble breathing, which is really scary because it’s similar to coronavirus. And trouble sleeping. But you also want to look out for extra frustration, and annoyance, and grief.”

Goodwin acknowledges that families of color might have additional levels of anxiety in trying times.

“I think kids are really smart and pick up on a lot of indirect messaging and intuitively understand a lot about oppressive structures. I think that it is an extra weight on all parents who are disproportionately impacted, especially people of color and black families, to articulate and name the impact that the virus has had on their lives, while also holding, even for themselves, their resilience and their own belief that they’re going to be okay,” she says.

She says it’s critical for parents, especially parents of color, to find their own support systems as well.

“I think they should turn to their own communities and name what they’re feeling about how their identities are extra impacted by this virus,” she says. “They should definitely continue mental health self services, which hopefully, could be done through telehealth. A lot of insurance companies are trying to reimburse for telehealth right now. I think that’s a good thing.”

She notes that Anesis, which employs exclusively therapists of color, is offering telehealth services, as are many other mental health care providers.

In the end, Goodwin says parents really have to be honest what’s going on, but also encourage their kids to press on.

“You want to acknowledge those things in a developmentally appropriate way to kids, like, ‘Yes, this has affected our family in X, Y, Z ways, but I believe in you.’ And you want to build that resilience that we can work through it.”